no empty chairs
this is what it looks like at my house at the breakfast table, on the mornings when the chairs are filled. and the bench, too, lined up with little bottoms, squeezed in, squirming in the ways that little boys do.
this is what it looks like when the early-morning whispers wake me, when a bedroom’s filled with little boys, sleepy-eyed boys, boys who can’t help but look little in their waking-up moments, boys who by day are practicing being big. one of them even sports a cell phone. they all use it, communal cell.
they are little boys and they have come to inhabit not only my house, but my heart.
ever since the big one moved on to college, the little one seems to have decided that this is a sharing house, a house where more is better, more is most.
and so, come friday nights, or saturdays, little boys with sleeping bags and pillows (and the occasional cell phone) come stumbling in the door, tumble up the stairs. they play and run and giggle. much giggling.
they are shy, some of them. and polite, all of them. heart-piercingly so. they’ve not read the journals mourning the demise of innocence. they still blush, some of them, when i call them, “sweetie.”
but it’s okay. i’ve not been scolded, not yet anyway, for calling those little boys all sorts of oozy names.
those boys, in ones or twos or threes — and once, so help me God, a four — they animate this house, they lull me off to sleep with their whispers past the midnight hour, and they stir me in the morn when i hear the pillows rumble way before i expect to hear a sound.
a bedroom filled with little boys is a beautiful thing. is a thing i thought i’d never see.
when you’re the mother of two boys who span as many years as mine, you’ve not grown accustomed to the rolling, sprawling, tumbling of double-decker boys. you mostly watch them spin in passing orbits.
so this little one, this little one who springs to life when with his buddies, he seems to have ordered up the very prescription for all our hollowed-out hearts.
he skipped no beats in dialing up that first slumber fest, the first week beyond the college drop-off. nearly every weekend since, this house has doubled or tripled its population of boys.
and i could not purr more contentedly. i could not cluck more cluckily.
best of all is when the morning comes. and i get to mother henning, all right. i crack eggs. pour milk. add dashes of vanilla and cinnamon. i slide bacon in the oven (for we learned that roasted turkey bacon, sprinkled with a dash of brown sugar, maybe rosemary, vulcan salt when the college kid comes back, is not only splatter-free but perfect to the tooth).
i set that table with a vengeance. just like in the old days, before the college boy was gone. i slap down forks, knives, spoons. in multiples. i line up glasses. set out jugs of juice.
and then the footsteps come. less a pitter-patter than a galump down the stairs. and there they are, the sleepy-eyed, pink-cheeked little boys, lined up by the cookstove. taking what i offer. always saying thank you.
sweet boys, these boys.
that’s when the old maple table springs to life. it is crowded, along each edge. arms are grabbing, passing, oops, sometimes spilling. but no worries here.
i know, through and through, that a house where food is good, is plentiful, is a house to which the gaggle will return.
and i want those boys to grow up here. i want to be a seamless part of their unfolding before my very eyes.
i want them to think of me as that nice lady who looks them in the eye, who can’t help but love them. who knows their favorite cookie. who knows who drinks milk and who does not.
i believe with all my heart that mothering extends far beyond the womb, far beyond any particular connection to any particular womb.
mothering is just another name for a certain brand of love. in my book, the most resilient love. the deepest, purest, most unbreakable love there ever was.
mothers don’t give up on their young. they wring their hands, they wrack their brains. but they get up the next morning and they ply it all again.
over the years i’ve heard tales of grown-up folk who found the mothering they needed at someone else’s house. of the certain pair of ears who listened in a way that no one did at home. who loved without sting. who set another place at the table, no matter how late the hour, how empty the fridge.
i know, because i’ve watched one crew grow up, head off to college, that once in a while even the greatest, finest, smartest kids can stumble into tight places and not quite know the way out.
i’ve been the mama who at 2 a.m. drove a car full of kids where they needed to be, to get there safely, no questions asked. no scolding, thank you.
i’ve lived to hear that that middle-of-the-night ride was the single thing that made one kid realize you can grow up without the need to hide the truth, tell lies. and ever since, he’s been a new kind of kid. a kid who still pulls up a stool at my kitchen counter, who still tells me stories he might not tell at home.
and now, with this little gaggle underfoot, still not big enough to cross a busy street without a grownup worrying, still not savvy enough to call a girl and not spit out laughing, i’ve got another chance, another round of kids to love as if my own.
i might not have birthed the 13 or six or even three i longed to mother, but my little one has fixed all that.
he fills my kitchen table most weekend mornings. and i have every intention of being mama to them all. i start now with french toast, and loads of maple syrup.
soon enough, i hope, i pray, i’ll be the house they run to, when there’s no one else to listen.
in my book, there oughta be a nobel prize for mothering. and we’d all win. all of us, and i know throngs, who have discovered deep inside that the one pure hope for civilization, for humankind, is to raise our young–the ones we birth, the ones we don’t–with every reason to believe there will be kindness, and honesty, and undying love just around the corner. the one where some big-hearted mama is just waiting to make it all all right.
who was the big mama in your life? the one who loved you unconditionally, who loved you through and through. (and always threw an extra cookie on your cookie plate…)